Infectious fear – telling immigration stories

By Yasmin Gunaratnam

Writing in The Times on the 18th October, Matthew Parris began his column by inviting us into a fictitious encounter between the prime minister and a voter:

“PM: Now, sir: what would you say is your biggest concern for our country?

VOTER: Immigration from Eastern Europe.

PM: How do you think it harms us?

VOTER: Parts of Britain are being swamped. In some places our schools and social services just can’t cope. The indigenous population are being elbowed aside for housing, hospital treatment and things like that.”

Parris went on to suggest that contemporary concerns and resentment of ‘foreigners’ tell us something important about the circulation of difficult feelings such as fear and anxiety.

I did not need a leap of the imagination to grasp Parris’ argument. In the summer, as part of locality-based qualitative research for the Mapping Immigration Controversies project, I interviewed UKIP and BNP supporters in the outer London Borough of Barking and Dagenham; a borough that has been feeling the impact of inexorable socio-economic decline. Like the voter in Parris’ imagined encounter, I was told about unemployment, shrinking public services, overburdened primary health care and unaffordable housing – all seen as caused by immigration. This is a borough where ethnic minority residents have grown from approximately a quarter in 2001 to just over half in 2011. Of all London boroughs, Barking & Dagenham has the highest proportion of working age adults (14%) with an illness or disability that limits their daily activities.

In one group interview with three BNP supporters, I found myself in a similar scenario to Parris’ fictive prime minister. In a reversal of traditional interview conventions, I was put on the spot with a question that members of the group were eager that I answer. Do I think it’s fair to let migrants into the UK without a health check? As if the question was too abstracted, they brought it closer to home. Literally. “So if I walked into your house knowing that I’ve got TB and you’ve got children and I’m coughing, do you think that’s fair to you, then?, Joe asked. In the ensuing discussion, the conversation slipped seamlessly between the subjects of migrants, disease and criminality:

Joe: … if somebody walks into my home knowing that they’ve got TB and they’re coughing and spluttering all over the place, I would hoof them out straightaway, once I found out they’d got TB, everybody can have a cough, but if they’ve got TB and know about it and they’re coming to this country, that’s like coming into our home.

Ann: Yeah.

Joe: This is our home, isn’t it?

Fred: It’s like putting a paedophile next to you when you know you’ve got two young daughters and they know, but you don’t know, but when you find out you’ll be the first one to moan, won’t you, because if you don’t there’d be something wrong with you.

Joe: Yes.

Ann: A lot of the undesirables are here.

Yasmin: Do you mean here particularly in Dagenham?

Ann: All over the country.

Fred: All over the country.

Ann: All over the country.

Joe: Everywhere’s got the same problem.

Ann: Like I say there are rapists, there are child molesters, just the scum of the earth.

Joe: Thieves and vagabonds.

The group’s invitation, to first imagine the threat of disease invading the (assumed) healthy intimacy of my home and then a paedophile living close-by, was highly charged, even though the connections to migrants in each scenario are not the same. What joined the dots of the rapid-fire listing of undesirables that followed – paedos, rapists, child molestors, thieves and vagabonds – is that they are all disgusting ‘scum of the earth’, or what the sociologist Imogen Tyler has called ‘revolting subjects’. For Tyler, the damage of the authoritative immigration rhetoric and imagery used by politicians, policymakers and the media is not only that certain vulnerable groups are demonised. It is also that feelings of insecurity and threat that circulate at times of economic hardship are encouraged and endorsed through cultural representations. Reworking the idea of Julia Kristeva’s abjection, Tyler makes a compelling case for how the figures of the ‘national abject’, including migrants, become: “ideological conductors mobilized to do the dirty work of neoliberal governmentality. They are symbolic and material scapegoats, the mediating agencies through which the social decomposition effected by market deregulation and welfare retrenchment are legitimized.” (p.9)

The ways in which migrants become the repositories of our fear does not remain the same, of course. The associations, narratives and metaphors that circulate in immigration stories are constantly shifting, even though certain themes endure. A study by the Migration Observatory of 58,000 news items about migrants, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in UK newspapers between 2010-12, found a prevalence of aquatic imagery. Examples included:

“MPs called on the PM to deploy ‘all necessary steps’ to stop the flood of migrants and their families, currently enough to fill ‘eight new cities’. (Tabloid)

The influx of migrants has put more pressure on public transport and led to more congestion. (Tabloid)

Transitional restrictions were imposed to prevent the kind of influx of migrants seen when Poland joined the EU. (Mid-market)”

More recently, it has been the symbolic connections between immigration, disease and criminality that are coming to the fore. On the 9th October, as polls were closing in two English by-elections, a story began to emerge of an interview Nigel Farage, leader of the UKIP, had given to Newsweek Europe. “Ukip want to control the quantity and quality of people” that come to the UK, Farage is reported to have told Newsweek.Farage HIV image

What did Farage mean by quality? With reference to Arnis Zalkalns, who is the key suspect in the murder of the British teenager Alice Gross, Farage was emphatic. “It’s simple. That Latvian convicted murderer shouldn’t have been allowed here.” Free-associating with earlier comments made by the interviewer about HIV, Farage went on to say that those allowed into Britain should include “people who do not have HIV”.

News of the interview spread quickly through broadcast and social media (a Storify sample of twitter responses can be found here). The HIV comments were front-page news in The Guardian on Friday 10th October – “Keep HIV positive migrants out of Britain, Farage says” – and continued to occupy news bulletins some days later. Farage’s views were countered by HIV charities, MP’s, health care professionals and the public. Rosemarie Gillespie, chief executive at the HIV charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust, told the tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail, “In bracketing those living with the condition with murderers and suggesting there is no place for them in his vision of Britain, Mr Farage has stooped to a new level of ignorance. He should be ashamed.”

The reemergence of the entangled metaphors and associations between migrants, criminals and disease has no doubt gathered impetus from other sources. Jonathan Freeland has recently identified what he believes to be a reductive and fear-inducing ‘pincer movement’ of anxieties about the Ebola virus and Isis. “Each time one advances, the space for the other expands” Freeland writes. He might well have been writing about the relationships between experiences of political and economic disenfranchisement and anti-immigrant sentiment. What we will be following as our project develops is the extent to which the plot lines of immigration narratives evolve, how they are taken up and how they are disrupted.

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